“In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” This quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, has the ring of truth: While no-one will knowingly walk into hardship, many who have seen it know never to “waste a good crisis” (as Winston Churchill is thought to have said).

Recognising and filling a need borne of disaster is opportunism at its best – not the kind that foments catastrophe for personal gain, but the sort that responds to hard times with solutions.

In times of need

Desperate circumstances aren’t the most obvious breeding ground of innovation; we tend to link it to things like literacy, access to higher learning and exposure to “the right” subjects. That’s why it seems so counter-intuitive for misfortune to carry such promise.

Not that South Africans aren’t intimately familiar with the need to think their way out of calamity or deprivation. Whether it’s the resourcefulness of farmers in lean years, the entrepreneurial flair of disadvantaged groups or the can-do attitude of migrant labour, the basic premise is the same: necessity is the mother of invention.

We see a great example in Nokwethu Khojane, founder of Lakheni – a mobile delivered solution that aggregates the buying power of township women. Leveraging economies of scale, Lakheni is able to negotiate discounts, generating much-needed savings for poor households.

When crisis hits

Beyond personal or social circumstances are natural disasters – sometimes coupled with poor planning – that affect everyone regardless of social station. The current water crisis in the Western Cape is one example. And not so long ago, load-shedding put us through a similar plight.

In both cases, the crisis in question yielded many innovations, inspiring both personal innovation (new ways to capture, use and filter water) and a myriad corporate products and services (including innovations in reducing consumption, storing and generating electrical power).

Lasting legacy of adversity

But potentially the longest-lasting legacy of going through a crisis without a convenient means of escape is the necessary change in our attitudes.

Without the ennobling effects of need, we’d never have thought of half of the new generation of approaches to innovation, consumption, storage, conservation and sharing of scarce natural capital, disposal of waste, or how to overcome disaster.

And that, in itself, is something novel for humankind – a concern for our heritage, life and future. It might be our most vital progress yet, and it was borne of the most dire of circumstances.

In the end, it’s up to all of us to consider the negative implications of inaction, on ourselves and others, and to beat the odds with careful planning and ingenuity. No matter how big or small our contribution, we can all help by thinking out of the box and coming up with solutions and hacks that others wouldn’t necessarily have considered or implemented.